Cat Skeletons in Undersea Expedition Reveal New Facts

Writings can provide us with incredible insight into the past. However, there are some serious limitations to them. For instance, we have no more than a small portion of the writings that have ever been made, as shown by how we are missing substantial portions of some of the most famous works that have ever existed. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that writings are focused on subjects of interest to writers, which is critical because literacy was much more limited in the past than in the present. This is the reason why we have a lot of writings about the elite but much less about those presided over by the elite.

Having said that, while this is a huge problem, there are various ways that interested parties can gain insight into subjects that were never brought up in the writings that have managed to survive into the present. One excellent example would be excavating the remnants of the past, which can provide a surprising amount of information about the past when studied in the proper manner. This can be seen in the cat skeletons that were excavated in Istanbul from 2004 to 2014 that have revealed that they lived in good conditions in the Byzantine period. Some context can be useful for understanding the situation, particularly since some of the comments in the article are rather misleading:

A Short Introduction to Byzantium

Istanbul was once called Byzantium. For those who are curious, there is a tradition that a Greek prince named Byzas was instructed by the Oracle of Delphi to settle opposite the “Land of the Blind.” In time, he chose a location where a natural harbor called the Golden Horn met the Bosphorus because he believed that the Chalcedonians on the other side were blind for not recognizing its natural advantages. The result was Byzantium, which was never a powerhouse comparable to either Athens, Corinth, or Sparta but nonetheless managed to prosper because of trade.

Eventually, Byzantium fell under the control of the Roman Empire. Generally speaking, the line of separation between Classical Antiquity and Late Antiquity is considered to be the Crisis of the Third Century, which is a time when the Roman Empire came very close to collapse thanks to a combination of civil war, peasant rebellions, barbarian migrations, and other issues. In 291, the Emperor Diocletian brought an end to the Crisis of the Third Century by establishing the Tetrarchy, though by 324, the Roman Empire had come under the singular rule of the Emperor Constantine. Said individual was the one who chose to establish an eastern capital at Byzantium, thus resulting in it being renamed Constantinople.

In 395, the Emperor Theodosius split the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western halves once more so that he could bestow the East to his son Arcadius and the West to his other son Honorius. The East fared much better than the West, as shown by how the latter is considered to have fallen in 476 when the East Germanic general Odoacer deposed the Emperor Romulus Augustulus. In contrast, the East continued on until 1453, which was when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire. For convenience as well as other reasons, the East tends to be called the Byzantine Empire, though its people continued to call themselves the Romans of the Roman Empire.

The Status of Cats in Constantinople

It is difficult to generalize about the status of cats in the Roman world. After all, if we count from the traditional founding of Rome in 753 BC, the Roman Kingdom, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire make for more than two millennia of history, meaning that there were plenty of changes in just about everything along the way. Still, there are some interesting things that can be said about the status of cats in the Roman world.

For starters, it took some time for the Romans to warm up to cats as pest control. They were aware of cats from a relatively early time, seeing as how they were connected to Egypt via trade. However, the Romans were similar to the Greeks in that they used weasels for pest control. We have evidence of Romans treating cats as household companions as early as the first century, but cats didn’t become truly popular until something like the 5th century. Still, when that happened, the Romans proceeded to spread them throughout the Roman Empire. As such, cats were well-established by Byzantine times.

As for neighboring regions, it was complicated. It is difficult to generalize about the Roman world, so it should come as no surprise to learn that it is difficult to generalize about either post-Roman Western Europe or the Islamic world. Still, it is true that Pope Gregory IX issued a papal bull denouncing cats for being evil in the 13th century, though the immediate effects are likely to have been limited because the papal bull was issued in Latin to a single German noble. Meanwhile, it is also true that the Islamic world has had an appreciation for cats since its start, though one can’t help but question the idea that it was a major factcr behind the Byzantine appreciation for cats. Certainly, the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world influenced one another because of their frequent interactions, but it is important to note that the two were also rivals, not least because the Islamic world came into existence because Arab Muslims were able to capitalize upon the weakness of both the Byzantine Empire and the Sasanian Empire caused by the last rounds of the Roman-Persian Wars in the 6th and 7th centuries.

Was the Byzantine Empire Ever Impacted By the Bubonic Plague?

There is a popular line of speculation that the Black Death was caused by the dislike of cats in post-Roman Western Europe. Basically, the idea is that fewer cats meant more rats and other rodents, which in turn, meant more opportunities for fleas to spread the pathogen to humans. However, if that is the case, that raises the question why more cat-loving regions weren’t spared. There are records of the Black Death hitting everywhere from Constantinople to Antioch and Baghdad. On top of that, it should be mentioned that scientists have managed to confirm that the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century was caused by the same pathogen, meaning that the Black Death was by no means the only time that humans were troubled by it.



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